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What’s Past is Prologue #1: A Brief Overview of the History of Post-Soviet Feminism

By Issy Golding

CW: Brief Mention of Sexual Harassment.

Check out the first installment of What’s Past is Prologue, a history-oriented column shedding light on neglected and little-known aspects of the past.

Mainstream feminism, broadly defined by the three waves, has seen itself as a universal trajectory of women’s rights in the 20th century. When looking outside of the West[1], this idea gets blurred by the individual experiences of those who don’t fit within this norm. If you look to states without the same history of a gradually developing social system that allows for the increasing collective identity of women, you can quickly see how these universal statements are a misrepresentation of reality. This extends much of the non-western world (especially those who have been colonised by such western states and are subsequently recovering or developing such infrastructure currently) and this is clear when looking at twentieth century Eastern Europe and the consequences of the communist regime on contemporary social politics.

In 1917 as the Bolshevik Revolution sowed the seeds of the Soviet Union; the relationship between communism and feminism was foreshadowed by the events of the collective action in the streets of Russia’s bustling cities. As the Great War rages to the west, the Bolsheviks, the party inciting revolution during the war, attempted to recruit a third of the workers in Petrograd factories, the one third which who women hired to temporary replace the men as they fought on the Eastern Front. The feminist movement at the time was framed by Bolshevik revolutionaries as an effort to obscure the greater issue of class interests. The ‘bourgeois equal righters’ were proposing they had common interests as women over their interests as members of a particular class. This division between gender and class under through the Bolshevik era is indicative of the relationship for the remainder of the century, and these notions were extended as other eastern Europe states began to join the Soviet bloc over the next 20 years.

USSR & Feminism – an unlikely pair.

Much of the twentieth century in Europe was divided by two opposing political ideologies. The western states were structured in a capitalistic and democratic system that allowed for the ongoing creation of a system that increasingly catered for women’s suffrage. Under this system, the suffragettes fought for the right to vote and  this ultimately grew into the feminist movements of today; a long history of collective identity as women. However, the USSR and the union of communist states that stood for the better part of the 1900s stood in direct contrast. Since political opposition was illegal, the generations that lived under communist rule did not have the history of building collective identities in the same way the collective experiences of womanhood shaped a collective identity of women in the west. The West’s mainstream feminist movement was built from the bottom-up from the history of women’s collectivisation, and the USSR’s history disallowed the very foundations of the bridge that built mainstream feminism.

This has meant that the movements in post-soviet Soviet countries today must contend with both their own complicated history as well as the global discourse of feminism today. The increasingly neoconservative and nationalist  political entities of the region further complicate everything. Today, the challenges of an increasingly connected world existing disconnected from the normalised history, has a tendency to silence the nuances of regional history. Basically, looking at any global movement assuming the globe has had the same experience limits the movement by disregarding the history, culture and social nuances of the less prominent areas. 

Effects of extremes

The USSR made all women equal to men, the communist ideology meant that the main conflict was based on class rather than gender. However, the superficiality of this hindered the feminist movement following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late twentieth century. Many women in the east have a perception of what this equality was like, and it wasn’t all it cracked up to be. While the current systems isn’t entirely better, and some places do have nostalgia for the communist era, the misconception that feminism wants to return to the way things were during the communist-era hinders a wider acceptance of the movement today. There is also a continuing cultural division between east and west and an us-vs-them ideology– us being tradition, them being the west.

The fall of the USSR saw a pendulum from the far left of the USSR to the far right leaders of today This is indicative of the disillusionment caused by the communist era and its collapse. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many governments have swung as far as they can towards the right to distance themselves from the perceived failure of communism: the memory of human rights abuses, large scale repression and low standard of living. This has also grown into a swing towards nationalism. Nationalism and gender themselves have a complicated history, and this is especially evident through countries with a history of national trauma. This is clear throughout much of the post-soviet examples where traditional values increasingly been prioritised as a means to uphold national identity. These values include ideas such as women’s roles within the home and within a family, family structures, education etc.

‘The god that failed.

A move towards traditional values has also included a move towards traditional religious ideas. Conservative Catholicism has again become a prominent part of national identity, and this can be seen in Poland and Hungary (both increasingly conservative nations politically). Poland is a strong example of these traditional values being opposed to the values of feminism, and this can be seen through the conservative religious sentiments seen in Poland today. During the long twentieth century, which has been marked by the loss of independent identity, religious was increasingly disallowed. Religion was seen as incompatible with loyalty to the state, but now the pendulum has swung to the increasing prominence of religion in politics. Issues such as abortion, LGBTQ+ rights and women’s role in society debates within courts and seen through protests across the country.

During the Soviet era a collective identity within women had not developed, however the collective experiences of male terrorism were widely experienced, meaning assault and harassment by men (both in public and private settings). In a 1980 Washington Post article exiled feminist Tayana Mamonova discussed how male terrorism is perceived to be the fault of women, and this same discourse is widely used to justify sexual assault and harassment in post-Soviet states today. Experiencing male terrorism is not seen as an experience shared by women at large, but instead a burden upon individual women.

The post 1989 governments have prioritised economic growth over social progress. Despite this neoliberal approach, unemployment in post-Soviet states is high, heavily skewed against women. During the communist era, the political and social obligation to engage in work meant unemployment was mostly unheard of and theoretically men and women had the same employment opportunities. Following the collapse of the union many of the social protections that allowed for this system also dissolved, such as childcare. Many women were pushed out of the workforce resulting in an unbalanced unemployment rate today. This unemployment rate has had an influence on exploitative practises, such as sex trafficking as women look for stable income abroad.

Feminism is complicated, historical perceptions of feminism even more so, and broad-brush strokes of what the history of feminism does little but misrepresent the complicated reality. Feminism, nationalism and the historical and political intersections of the two have a tangled history in most parts of the world. In a region with a history of trauma, repression and an ideology of superficial equality (at least for women), the growth of any collective movement was difficult. Compounding this onto the regimes reborn during the swing from communism to far-right nationalism, the history of Soviet feminism lies movement living in between a unique position within between a worldwide movement and regional experience.

Further Readinga good opportunity to productively procrastinate.

Gender and Nation in Hungary Since 1919 Edited and introduced by Judith Szapor and Agatha Schwartz      —      A collection of essays in Hungarian feminism over the 20th century.

“Feminism, the murderer of mothers”: The rise and fall of neo-nationalist reconstruction of gender in Hungary by Éva V. Huseby-Darvas    —      Report on the perceptions of feminism in Hungary today, some good fun oral history.

The Future of the European Union. Feminist perspectives from East-Central Europe by Eszter Kováts —     a good look into current EU feminist issues.

[1] For the purpose of this article ‘west’ refers to the states that have a history of democracy & capitalism (e.g United Kingdom, United States, etc.) and therefore have the social infrastructure to develop ideological movements. ‘East’ refers to Post-Soviet states (e.g Hungary, Russia, Latvia, etc.) but similar historical trends extend outside of the European context.